Progressives Can Learn from Scotland and Wales
By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
Progressives, people of color, and women advocates, stuck in the
doldrums of Bush's America, should look toward Scotland and Wales for
relief. Grounded in new "full representation" voting systems that provide
multi-party democracy, elections there this May showed the value of voting
In contrast to the United States, where the number of women in Congress
is stuck at 14 percent and declining in state legislatures, the Welsh
assembly became the first parliament in the world in which women make up
50 percent of members.
Commenting on women's significant success, Welsh politician Rhodri
Morgan said, "What is so remarkable is that up until the last decade of
the 20th century we had an appalling record. Until 1997, Wales only ever
had four women Members of Parliament. Our industrial heritage meant
business was conducted in smoke-filled rooms of men."
But 1997 was when Wales introduced a full representation voting system
-- and the change for women's representation was immediate. The Welsh
results show how, under full representation, even a traditional society
Meanwhile in Scotland, under the U.S.-style winner-take-all elections
that used to elect their parliament, government always was a one-party
stronghold of Tony Blair's allies in the Scottish Labour Party. But the
recent introduction of full representation (also known as proportional
representation) broke up the political machine and provided representation
of the full diversity of Scottish opinion. In their May elections, the
anti-war Scottish Nationalist and Liberal Democratic parties won more than
a third of seats, while the Green Party and Scottish Socialists won more
than 10 percent of seats.
Scotland demonstrates the value of electoral justice in which parties
win their fair share. The Scots use a "mixed" system -- some seats elected
by winner-take-all, one-seat districts like in the United States, others
by full representation. Of the 73 seats decided in one-seat contests, the
Labour Party won a landslide of 46 seats (63 percent) even though they
received less than 35 percent of the popular vote. The Greens and
Socialists won no seats. But the "full representation" seats balanced
things out, resulting in Labour winning its fair and proportional share of
50 of 129 total seats.
Labour has been forced to negotiate and forge a coalition pact with the
Liberal Democrats, and to reach out to the Green Party as well, giving
progressives unprecedented influence. The Liberal Democrats have demanded
more investment in health care and the introduction of full representation
voting systems for local elections. Green issues on the table are the
ending of GM crop trials, public transport, and cutting pollution through
Many factors produced these results, including the hard work of
advocates for women's representation and insurgent parties. But
overwhelmingly the largest factor has been the introduction of full
representation into the Scottish and Welsh parliaments.
"Full representation" describes voting systems in which groupings of
voters elect seats in fair proportion to their share of the popular vote,
rather than being shut out of representation if less than a majority. Ten
percent and thirty percent of the vote win correspondingly ten percent and
thirty percent of the seats, instead of nothing; 51 percent wins a bare
majority instead of everything. Full representation produces more
representative legislatures, which in turn produces truly representative
policy, as well as the potential to define and change the direction of
Full representation has given Scottish and Welsh voters unprecedented
freedom to express their political preferences. In addition to the stark
contrast in Scotland between the winner-take-all seats and overall
results, without full representation the Labour Party in Wales would have
won fully three-quarters of the seats with just two-fifths of the vote. In
both regions, then, with winner-take-all it would have been ho-hum,
one-party government by a Labour Party that keeps tacking to the right.
In the United Kingdom, full representation also has been adopted for
elections to the European Parliament, the London city council, and the new
regional assembly in Northern Ireland. A blue ribbon commission has
recommended full representation for the UK's national parliament. With our
British political forebears testing the waters of "fair representation for
all," it is time for this latest wave to wash across the Atlantic.
Full representation already has taken root in U.S. soil. In 2000, for
example, Amarillo, Texas became the largest city to use a full
representation system called cumulative voting. The results have been
uplifting. After being all-white for two decades, the seven-member school
board now has two Latinas and one African American. Women have won more
seats, and turnout has surged.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the evidence is compelling. Progressives
and advocates for representation for women, people of color, and minor
parties would do well to work to replace 18th-century winner-take-all
elections with full representation.
Steven Hill is a senior analyst with the
Center for Voting and Democracy
and author of Fixing Elections:
The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics (Routledge Press).
Rob Richie is executive director of the Center.